Tarantino unleashes his usual barrage of joyful exploitation
Some would say being a Quentin Tarantino fan is a matter of taste, or perhaps in some minds, it’s a matter of being swayed by his utter tastelessness. Put me in Camp Tarantino every day and twice on Sunday.
A follow-up to Inglourious Basterds, another film that flips an Italian genre film on its head in hyper-Tarantino fashion, Django Unchained pays homage to the title character of the spaghetti western Django, but then goes full bore Tarantino on his ass, changing the setting to America several years before the Civil War. The title character is a runaway slave (Jamie Foxx) who has information needed by German bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Basterds’ Oscar winner Christoph Waltz). This is the reason Schultz offers Django an unheard of proposition: If Django will help him with his bounty hunting for the winter, Schultz will help Django find his wife Bromhilda (Kerry Washington).
The trail to the plantation Candyland, where Bromhilda now resides, is littered with corpses. The bloodletting is eventually so extreme it slides into the realm of cartoon violence, as one laughs at the ridiculous level of blood splatter while feeling its cumulative effect.
But there is a point to this display. The violence shown against the slaves is brutal without the cartoon element. When we see a slave whipped, or set upon by wild dogs, or see two black men forced to fight each other to the death for the entertainment of a particularly vile plantation owner, we are reminded that this troubling display is a core element of our true, shameful history. Tarantino whips his version of history into frenzied exploitation unfettered by any sense of decorum, but that doesn’t mean it lacks validity.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays the vile plantation owner, Calvin Candie. DiCaprio is obviously having a blast playing a monster barely hidden beneath the sickly sweet talk of a Southern gentleman, seemingly polite and thoughtful about his guests, Django and King Schultz — even as he orders dogs to tear the flesh from a runaway slave, or tells one slave to bash another slave over the head with a hammer.
Foxx plays Django as a man who has spent his life as a slave and has learned to keep his rage coiled within, except with a glint in his eye now that he has the power to legally pull the trigger. Waltz’s polite, but deadly, Schultz could be a cousin to his Col. Landa character from Basterds.
Yet the most odious villain in the film is Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, the slave who runs the house for his owner Candie. Stephen long ago decided to do whatever it took to remain in the good graces of his master, including turning against his race. Like Candie, he has no sense of morality and Jackson conveys that mindset with precision.
As with most Tarantino films you will enjoy both his musical score and his tendency to have fun with cameo roles. The music ranges from classic spaghetti western themes to my favorite piece, the gorgeous Jerry Goldsmith-penned theme from the film Under Fire. As for the cameos, you get extra points if you spot Bruce Dern, Tom Wopat, Don Stroud, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn, Robert Carradine, Michael Parks and Tarantino’s favorite stuntwoman, Zoe Bell.
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